Canadian journalist Tanya Talaga investigates a series of tragic deaths among First Nations youth in Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. She walks a fine line between emotion and distance, based on her own connections as a member of the First Nations. As a reader, it was hard to find distance. I got caught up in the emotions of the story, which made it both more important and harder to read.
On the other hand, feeling the intensity of the situation helped me see the desperation the indigenous community feels. And the anger. This is a book about seven families and the death of their child. But more than that, it’s about the failure of Canada’s people and government to treat its First Nations people with respect and dignity. The simple dignity of a proper K-12 education in the town where your family lives. The respect to be considered 100% a full person by all. And deserving both dignity and respect when tragedy strikes, and the police need to investigate.
None of this happened effectively in the cases of these seven indigenous high school students. They came to Thunder Bay, Ontario to attend high school, since there wasn’t a good option near their homes further North. Some of them didn’t speak English at all but were expected to navigate an unfamiliar setting. They lived with host families but mostly didn’t have true supervision. And, as teens will do, they rebelled as they had the chance.
I knew this would be a rough read when I started it. But I had no idea how rough it would actually be. Honestly, I just ached for these families. Talaga tells the kids’ stories, of course. But she also explains what losing their child was like for the parents and other close relatives. So many people in each indigenous community were affected by the deaths. And in some cases, the situations overlapped, so that doubled the grief.
After I was sad, I got mad. The Thunder Bay police, coroner and community treated these deaths like the kids were expendable. Which is criminal in and of itself. Talaga also explains why there are epidemics of addiction and suicide among the First Nations people. It’s not hard to imagine the feelings of hopelessness. But that didn’t make it easier to swallow.
If you’re a social justice reader, you must read this book. Sometimes it’s flawed, especially in flow and organization. But the heart of the matter is important. And the same problems that Talaga explains about Canada happen in the United States as well. We must all be more aware of the intergenerational trauma borne by the Native American and First Nations people.
As I read, I always think about my book pairing suggestions. This time I have a set of relationships using this book and a few related recent reads.
Braiding Sweetgrass is to Seven Fallen Feathers